Bhutan PM Lotay Tshering in India: Time New Delhi starts treating Thimpu as an growing democracy
New Delhi, Dec 28: Bhutanese Prime Minister Dr Lotay Tshering on Thursday, December 27, arrived in India on his first foreign visit after taking over office in November. On Friday, December 28, he spoke to his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi where he mentioned that just as the Indian PM chose Bhutan to be his first foreign destination after taking over the office in 2014, he also decided to do the same. Tshering also reminded that 2018 marks the 50th year in diplomatic relations between the two neighbours and that it should continue for centuries, double centuries and triple centuries.
Time to see Bhutan as a democracy which strives for self-reliance
Tshering and his party -- Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa (DNT) -- is still an unknown leader in Indian circles which gives rise to speculation over how his government would go about in the country's relationship with India even though New Delhi and Thimpu have historically had a smooth relationship. It is too early to gauge the new ruling party of Bhutan but one thing is certain and that is: Bhutan is now a democracy with its internal political competition and India cannot continue to take its political and economic relationship with the neighbouring state taken for granted. In fact, just like Nepal, Bhutan is also expected to grow as a country with high ambitions of self-reliance and that requires India to start treating it as an ally on an equal pedestal and not as a small, landlocked nation that continues to depend on India for its own good.
Mangdechhu project high on Bhutan agenda
More than seeing Bhutan as a country which chooses either between India or China and hence the need to maintain winning its loyalty, it is important to look at things that make the Himalayan nation a self-reliant one in various perspective in days to come. According to Bhutan-based journalist Tenzing Lamsang, the new premier of Bhutan has four main agendas during his visit to India and they are: a fair tariff for the 720 MW bilateral Mangdechhu hydroelectric project; seeking India's cooperation for Bhutan's 12th Five Year Plan; flagging off the 2,560 MW Sunkosh Reservoir project besides waiving off the Central GST in Bhutan. Each of these issues are crucial for Bhutan's own commercial interests and they involve India.
Of these, the Mangdechhu project, as Lamsang argues, is the most significant issue. PM Tshering is concerned about the tariff rate for the project for the biggest share of Bhutan's internal revenue in its 12th Five Year Plan is set to come from this project which starts production in January. The two sides have had several meetings already over deciding mutual tariff rates though nothing concrete has come out yet.
"Indian negotiators are offering up to Rs 3.90 a unit. Bhutan wants something closer to Rs 4.40 a unit - which it feels is closer to the higher loan amount and cost of financing of the project and in line with the time-tested "cost-plus model" that was used for the landmark 1020 MW Tala project," Lamsang said in a piece written for The Indian Express. Bhutan is also eager to begin construction of the Sunkosh project and also has plans to construct the 2,650 MW Kuri Gongro reservoir project for economic returns. India has to keep in mind that these projects not only have an economic significance for Bhutan today also political ones for in a growing ambience of political competition, parties in Bhutan will be doing all they can to claim credit for their country's economic progress for which these projects are key. And as a senior partner which also has the responsibility to ensure that its land-locked small neighbour's interests are not ignored, India will also have to act faster and decisively.
It should be also kept in mind that Bhutan, for the first time, is not seeking a hike in development assistance from India over its last plan period which means compared to the 11th plan, India could potentially fund less of the 12th. The Himalayan nation is reducing its overall grant component, something which all its parties target as a step towards self-reliance and national growth. The current DNT and previous People's Democratic Party government have both eyed the same target which makes it evident that Bhutan is asserting its interests more.
For India, this should be a guideline for a fresh Bhutan project and treat the neighbour as an equal trading partner and not an aide recipient. Granting Bhutan a respect rather than aide will help its own national interests in the region in the long run.